A little girl breathlessly runs up to her mother in the park and says, “I just made my new best friend!” The mother is very happy for her daughter and asks several follow-up questions like, “What’s your friend’s name?” and “Does she live around here?” Her daughter just says, “I don’t know” to each question but then adds, “We were both playing in the sandbox and we shared the shovel. That makes us best friends!”
Friendship is as simple as that for many young children. They base their first friendships on shared activities and simply being around other children. For three and four year olds, simply learning to play cooperatively with one another is the pinnacle of being a good friend.
It can be easy for parents to dismiss the importance of these early friendships since adult standards for friendship are quite different from those of young children. However, these early friendships are the start of a young child’s training in how to get along in our society.
Early childhood friendships are typically the first time a child can interact with someone who is an equal. Working with someone who is an equal requires an entirely different set of skills. It requires developing social skills, learning to resolve conflicts, and being able to compromise. All of these skills will come into play when a young child begins to go to school.
Another skill that early friendships help develop is the ability to deal with anger effectively. Young children often get very angry with their friends. Frequently a friend will fail to share a toy or refuse to take turns. The first reaction a child often has is to threaten or resort to force.
It can be tempting for parents to intervene at this point. However, it may be best to wait and see how the situation resolves itself as long as neither child is at risk for physical injury. The reason for parents to wait to intervene is that the natural consequences of a situation can often make more of an impression on a child than a parent telling a child something.
In this case, a girl grabs her friend’s toy and screams at her. Her friend then starts crying and runs away, refusing to play with the girl anymore. The girl comes to her mother complaining that her friend won’t play anymore. This is when the mother can talk to the girl about what makes a good friend. The lesson being that we sometimes get angry with friends but we need to control those feelings so we don’t ruin the friendship over something relatively minor.
Young children will inevitably make numerous mistakes with their friends early on as they learn appropriate social skills and conflict management. While some friendships may be lost, children will benefit from the experiences. By kindergarten, most children will have had enough experiences with friends so that they can enter a playgroup smoothly, notice classmates that seem friendly and likeable, and have developed a preference for certain friends.
This all lays the ground work for children to reap the benefits of close friends that serve us well throughout our lives. Friendships make children more resilient in the face of obstacles, better able to withstand stress, and increases self-esteem and confidence. Parents can start their child on this road by encouraging them to interact with other children and setting up playdates.
This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on June 22, 2014.